Courtesy of the artist
Tracy Nelson is getting ready to release her new album, Victim of the Blues.
Tracy Nelson is getting ready to release her new album, Victim of the Blues. Courtesy of the artist
Through a 40-year career that's reached from the Fillmore scene of late 1960s San Francisco to Nashville's top studios, Tracy Nelson has earned a reputation as a powerful singer with a stunning voice. Recently, Nelson's work on a new album was interrupted by a fire that badly damaged her home and her studio. But the music, like the artist herself, proved to be a survivor.
It should come as no surprise for a woman whose most famous band was called Mother Earth, but Tracy Nelson lives in the country. Forty minutes from downtown Nashville, 10 miles off the freeway at a bend in the road, stands the farmhouse she has shared for a decade with her companion, recording engineer Mike Dysinger. It should be a bucolic sight, but the 100-year-old structure is scorched inside, and the front porch is jammed with blackened furniture and personal belongings. Nelson is in the front yard, rescuing an old watercolor whose frame has shattered.
From Her Upcoming Album Victim of the Blues
She says the fire started about 10 o'clock on a Saturday night and spread quickly. "I smelled smoke upstairs and Mike was yelling and the smoke alarm was kind of going eeh eeh — being wimpy. By the time I came out the bedroom door, the smoke was so thick. We just didn't have much time except to get out and get as many animals out as we could and open the doors and hope the rest of them would figure it out and most of them did."
Lost And Found
Two of Nelson's nine dogs did not make it. She also lost a family heirloom piano and a number of photos and posters from her 1960s heyday. However, thanks to some meticulous work by the local volunteer fire department, Dysinger's in-home studio survived. And with it, the new, 95 percent complete Tracy Nelson album, one she'd already decided to call Victim of the Blues.
This was no woe-is-me title. Nelson means only to say that for her many forays into rock, soul and country, the blues has held sway over her entire life in music.
"This is my 24th or 25th record. I'm at the point in my career and in my life when I just want to do stuff I haven't done before. And really straight, traditional blues I hadn't done in 40 years," Nelson says.
That archaic, pre-World War II sound first captivated her as a teenager in Madison, Wis. She made it her own on her 1965 debut, which featured her singing and playing acoustic piano and guitar with a young Charlie Musselwhite playing harmonica.
Nelson electrified her sound after she moved to San Francisco and formed Mother Earth. In a scene dominated by the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, some thought Nelson's voice was at least as strong as that of her contemporary Janis Joplin, even if Nelson never matched her success.
"Every label I signed with, with the possible exception of MCA, thought they were getting the next Janis ... or something equivalent," Nelson recalls. "I don't think I misrepresented myself, but they just assumed I would fall into whatever slot they wanted to put me in. And I didn't. And I wouldn't. ... I will not take direction where the kind of music I do is involved."
Nelson's very personal sense of direction then took her to Nashville in 1969, where she made a country album, with Elvis Presley's original rhythm section and Music Row's best session players.
"The consistent criticism that I've gotten of all my records — although I take it as praise — is that it's just all over the place,” says Nelson. "I do a little country music. And a little bit of jazz. A lot of blues and a lot of R&B. There's no one slot that any of it fits into. So that of course works against you."
The Voice Stays Strong
In the 1990s, Nelson found a home for her eclectic tastes on Rounder Records, including an album-length collaboration with Marcia Ball and R&B legend Irma Thomas.
"We've been what you call mutual admirers of each others' talent for a long time," says Thomas.
Thomas, another of Nelson's early idols, says they first met in the 1970s but that she didn't get the chance to truly take in the full impact of Nelson’s live performance until they toured together in the late '90s.
"And I had an opportunity to sit back and just listen to her sing, and I was truly appreciative of her voice, because she has a magnificent voice. She can truly sell a song and she was much younger then, so I can imagine with that voice and the maturity that she has grown into vocally as well as mentally, those songs have got to be over the top," she says.
Thomas hasn't heard the new record; few people have. And in the wake of the fire that nearly destroyed Nelson's home and studio, the CD probably won't be released until this winter. But Nelson says her pride in the new music and the outpouring of support from her friends and fans have relit a fire inside her.
"I need to kind of repay that, so I may have to get back on the road," she says, laughing. "I'm gonna have to get back on the road to pay for some of this anyway, but I just really had not properly respected the people out there who really care about what I do. So I'm going to have to do something about that."
If Tracy Nelson's career is a guide, those who do get to hear her sing will pay that respect back in full.